The Stumpf Sequel

Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted death row inmate John David Stumpf’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus for a second time – seven years after its first habeas grant, six years after the Supreme Court’s reversal of that decision, and four years after the subsequent oral argument. As one might expect, the panel was divided, just as it had been the first time around. Judge Daughtrey wrote the majority opinion, joined by Judge Moore. Judge Boggs dissented. Although the majority’s rationale is somewhat different this time, the arguments seem familiar. Could this decision prompt another Supreme Court reversal? Perhaps. After all, this is a habeas grant from the Sixth Circuit.

Excerpts from the opinions are below the jump.

Judge Daughtrey’s majority opinion in Stumpf v. Houk, joined by Judge Moore, begins:

Recent polling results and statistical compilations support many of the economic and penological arguments that have long been raised in opposition to the imposition of the death penalty in the United States. Other statistics bolster objections to a form of punishment that, possibly because of its finality, has been shown to have been misdirected. Such polemical discussions, while interesting, are, however, better suited for the deliberations in the chambers of our state and national legislatures. In this appeal, we are not asked to involve ourselves in those debates, or even in a discussion of the constitutionality of the death penalty. Instead, we are required to examine only the constitutional ramifications of court proceedings that are alleged to have infringed John David Stumpf’s right to be sentenced in accordance with longstanding principles of due process and fundamental fairness. We conclude that those principles were violated by the state in seeking to execute Stumpf even after it became clear that the basis for the imposition of the death penalty had been seriously compromised in the subsequent prosecution of Stumpf’s accomplice, as further explained below. Indeed, the facts of this case exemplify the arbitrariness that prior decisions of the United States Supreme Court and of this court have decried as violative of fundamental constitutional safeguards. As a result, we once again reverse the judgment of the district court and remand this matter for issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, unless the State of Ohio conducts a new sentencing hearing for Stumpf within 90 days of the issuance of this opinion.

The opinion’s conclusion reads, in part:

we conclude that Stumpf’s due process rights were violated by the prosecution’s arguments leaving the impression with Stumpf’s sentencers that the petitioner was the principal offender in the murder of Mrs. Stout, even though the state had evidence and a belief that co-defendant Wesley was actually the triggerman in Mrs. Stout’s murder. Because all indications are that the three-judge panel that sentenced Stumpf to death would not have done so had the state not persisted in its efforts at duplicity, we also hold that the petitioner was prejudiced by that constitutional violation.

Judge Boggs forceful dissent begins:

The majority has resurrected a new substantive right of their own invention, which made its first appearance in Stumpf v. Mitchell, 367 F.3d 594 (6th Cir. 2004), vacated by Bradshaw v. Stumpf, 545 U.S. 175 (2005), and apparently had all along been lurking somewhere within the Fourteenth Amendment. In its current iteration, the new right protects a convicted murderer from being sentenced to death where mitigating evidence (i.e., evidence that does not undermine the murder conviction itself but that might have counseled towards a more lenient sentence) discovered after sentencing is later used by the prosecution against a different defendant. Notably, the due process violation is not that mitigating evidence exists that is later discovered, which would not by itself offend the Constitution, [citations omitted] but, curiously, that the newly discovered evidence is later used by the prosecution against a different defendant. Somehow, that purely later conduct retroactively renders the earlier sentence unconstitutional.

Consider a hypothetical case. B is killed in a horrifying fashion. A is tried for the murder of B, is convicted, and due to the terrible nature of the crime, is sentenced to death. A’s trial is not merely in compliance with constitutional standards, but is a model trial. The most scrutinizing criminal lawyers available comb through the trial record in search of some plausible legal claim to bring on appeal, but they find nothing, and A’s sentence is correctly affirmed on direct review. The majority’s new right has no import at this time. Many years later, a witness comes forward with new information—the witness explains that C and A killed B in concert, and that C’s conduct was more vile. Still, the majority’s new right has no import. But wait—the prosecutor acts on the witness’s testimony and tries C for B’s murder, arguing that, even though A was already convicted of the murder, it was in fact C that committed the most horrifying aspects of the crime. Sure, the jury acquits C, but that is apparently besides the point. Now, the majority’s new right finally jumps into action. The prosecutor in C’s trial has denied A—yes, A—the right to be sentenced fairly, in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

I do not agree with that application of the Constitution in the slightest, and as I explained in my first dissent in this case, I believe that the out-of-circuit cases that the majority relies upon for its new rule are readily distinguishable. Stumpf v. Mitchell, 367 F.3d at 618–22 (Boggs, J., dissenting). I would therefore affirm the decision of the district court dismissing Stumpf’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus.